Wright State volleyball: Matters’ personal touch helps Raiders reach new heights

WSU set to make first NCAA Tournament appearance Friday vs. Purdue; Dayton faces Marquette

Celia Powers was like the rest of the holdovers on the Wright State volleyball team two years ago when Allie Matters was hired as coach — hopeful, but wary.

The Raiders were coming off an 11-18 season and missed qualifying for the Horizon League tournament for the 10th straight year. The players may have sensed there was talent in the program, but they’d become accustomed to losing and saw no reason to believe that would change.

Until meeting Matters, that is.

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“I remember thinking, when is this new coach going to come in? How are we going to react to her? And when she came in, she knew all of our names. She knew what position we played, what club we came from and everything about us. It made us a lot more comfortable with her,” Powers said.

“She wanted us not only to get better as a volleyball team, but as people, too. We could tell she cared about us.”

Matters wasn’t just trying to make a good first impression. The former Seton Hall assistant — who starred for the Pirates from 2006-09 — has been consistent about reaching out to her players, often hosting them for team meals and inviting them individually to her office just to chat.

“When she came, all aspects of the program changed. There was so much confidence in us, it made us believe,” said Powers, a junior from Cincinnati. “There’s so much teamwork. We came together as a group and know we can trust each other way easier than in the past. I think that’s the biggest component — having trust in your teammates.”

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Changing the culture in the program produced instant results. The Raiders posted their first winning season in 15 years in 2018, and they improved to 22-5 while capturing their first regular-season league title this year.

They’re making their maiden trip to the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection and will face 16th-ranked Purdue at 7 p.m. Friday in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers finished fifth in the Big Ten and are 22-7 overall.

Dayton (22-8) will meet No. 12 Marquette (27-5) in the other first-round match at 4:30 p.m. in Holloway Gym. The winners will play at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Matters, who was named conference coach of the year, believes the Raiders will finally be able to play without pressure after a tension-filled month trying to win the league.

They secured home-court advantage in the conference tourney but lost in the semifinals to Northern Kentucky.

“Every single Horizon League match we played in the last round meant so much,” she said. “It was, ‘Hey, if we win, we’ll do THIS.’ And I think the team can genuinely go into this match and just enjoy being on the court and being together.

“We have absolutely nothing to lose, and that’s a really powerful feeling.”

The Raiders have racked up their most wins since 1995 and are assured of setting a single-season program record for winning percentage. And while they may have once cowered at facing a major-conference titan, they’re not awed by Purdue.

One of the common opponents between the teams is Notre Dame. Wright State beat the Irish on the road, 3-2, while the Boilermakers lost in South Bend by the same score.

The Raiders actually watched that Purdue-ND match during one of many team-bonding events — dinner at the Powers home after winning a tournament at Xavier.

“This team always rises to the level of our competition, and I think it’s going to be just as hard of a game for them as they see anywhere,” said Powers, one of four first-team all-league players for Wright State. “We’re going to give them our best shot and see what they give us back.”

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